Writer/director Kim Ji-Woon may not be as well known as fellow countrymen Park Chan-Wook and Kim Ki-Duk, but he has developed a pretty loyal following based upon such varied films as The Quiet Family (which was later remade by Takashi Miike as Happiness Of The Katakuris), the wrestling pic The Foul King, and most recently, the spooky psychodrama A Tale Of Two Sisters. As such, when word of his most recent film, A Bittersweet Life, started making the rounds, people started getting pretty excited. And the pics and clips that started surfacing only seemed to increase people’s anticipation, and with good reason — if nothing else, they showed that Kim hadn’t lost his amazing sense of style one bit.
Unfortunately, it often seems as if an amazing sense of style is all that A Bittersweet Life has going for it. The film centers on Kim Sun-Woo (Lee Byung-hun, 3-Iron, Joint Security Area), a trusted enforcer for the mob boss Kang. Normally, he manages “La Dolce Vita,” a very posh, upscale hotel restaurant — when he’s not throwing goons out of the hotel’s night club with considerable panache and skill. However, Sun-Woo’s latest job is something slightly more unorthodox.
Kang has a young new girlfriend, but he suspects she’s also seeing someone else. Kang asks Sun-Woo to check up on her while he’s on a business trip, and kill her if it turns out she really is cheating.
Of course, if I tell you that A Bittersweet Life slips into cliché quite a bit, then you should know what happens next. Turns out the girl really is cheating on Kang — not hard to see why, all he does is buy her lamps — but Sun-Woo has an inexplicable change of heart. He lets her go, making her promise to never see her other beau again, and hopes that will be the end of things. Which, of course, it isn’t.
Soon, Sun-Woo’s carefully ordered life — think Alain Delon in Le Samourai — comes falling down all around him. Kang betrays him and tosses him aside, leaving him for dead, while a rival gang led by the buffoonish Baek is out to get him for having embarassed them earlier. And yes, that is when it all begins to hit the fan, with Sun-Woo plotting his revenge, with bullets a-flying and bodies a-falling.
I’m not really spoiling things because, as I mentioned before, the film follows a very predictable and cliched plot. To his credit, Kim Ji-Woon seems to realize that, and so he doesn’t try to do any genre twisting, but rathers allows the film’s story arc to play out to its bitter end. Unfortunately, for all of the film’s panache and considerable visual zest — whether it be the amazing set design of “La Dolce Vita,” Sun-Woo’s carefully tailored suits, or the stunning action sequences when Sun-Woo lets loose with fists and pistols — it never reaches a point where it at all becomes compelling.
The critical flaw that I think upsets the movie as a whole is that the entire film rests on the notion that Hee-Soo, Kang’s girlfriend, awakens something in Sun-Woo during their time together. Something that makes him go against his normally methodical and precise way of life, that makes him break the extreme sense of duty and procedure that he supposedly lives by. And although Sun-Woo suddenly begins acting as something did happen to him, the viewer is never let in on that personal revelation. We see it in action and we see the effects, but it never feels real or believable.
That’s most likely because Hee-Soo only has what is really an extended cameo in the movie. At one point, we find out that Kang likes her because she is a free spirit, but we don’t see that (actually, most of the time she seems rather petulant and shallow). As such, it’s hard to believe that Sun-Woo would suddenly make a switch simply because of the way Hee-Soo eats her ice cream, or because she flashes him a smile while playing the cello. It’s hard to believe that she’s worthy of such a sacrifice, which has the effect of robbing his inevitably bloody vengeance of any sense of justice.
In one scene, Sun-Woo stares out of the restaurant’s windows, upon which are reflected the city’s night lights. It seems like a different world, one that he, in “La Dolce Vita“‘s pristine order, is completely removed from by his own violent affiliations. And perhaps that’s the film’s point, that someone as violent as Sun-Woo can never truly be anything else, even if a small shred of humanity is awoken, however unbelievable that might be. But even so, the character development in the film is so shallow — though, to be fair, Byung-Hun gives it his all — that it’s hard to feel any sense of tragedy or loss as the film enters its final movement.
Many folks are calling A Bittersweet Life this year’s OldBoy, which is high praise in my book. But it’s also undue praise. A Bittersweet Life is certainly as visually lavish as OldBoy, perhaps even moreso in places, and it has a similar sense of violence, complete with shootings, gougings, knifings, torture, and car wrecks. But unlike OldBoy, where it wound up in a very tragic, almost Shakespearean dénouement, A Bittersweet Life leaves one feeling hollow and unsatisfied.
There’s no doubt that Kim Ji-Woon has an incredible eye for detail, no matter how minute — even the way characters turn around while walking feels thought out — but that detail only results in pretty scenery waiting for drama to breathe life into it. Supposedly, the film’s original cut ran nearly 3 hours, which means that over 50 minutes of footage was removed for this Director’s Cut. I can’t help but wonder if the key to making the film more than what it was and closer to what it comes so close to being didn’t end up somewhere on the cutting room floor.